Wow, Pulitzer committee. That’s cold.
For the first time in 35 years, no Pulitzer Prize was awarded in the fiction category. The message from the committee to any author who published a novel or short story collection in 2011 seems to be: Sorry, you’re just not good enough. The Pulitzer Board failed to reach a necessary majority to determine a winner based on the three fiction finalists determined by a panel of three jurors.*
The fiction jurors were Susan Larson, former book editor of The Times-Picayune, Maureen Corrigan, book critic for Fresh Air on NPR, and the novelist Michael Cunningham, who won the 1999 Pulitzer for his novel The Hours.
The jurors chose three finalists — Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and The Pale King by David Foster Wallace — and it was up to the Pulitzer Board to make the final decision. To be fair to the Board, the jurors may have made the decision more difficult than it should have been. Johnson’s Train Dreams is a novella that was re-issued from 2002, and the board may have felt as though it was something they’d seen before. The posthumously published, incomplete The Pale King wasn’t the late Wallace’s best work. But why not give the award to Russell? Swamplandia! isn’t the typical Pulitzer winner, but it’s an intelligent, inventive, and thoroughly entertaining read. In a time when people aren’t buying books — especially literary adult novels — it seems counterproductive and insulting not to hand out a Pulitzer Prize, which translates into sales. Last year’s winner, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, got a huge boost in paperback after the announcement.
Getting a mass audience to buy a challenging literary novel is an uphill battle, and there better be a good reason for depriving the reading public of a quality recommendation. My mother, whose first language is not English, would always buy and spend a painstakingly long time to read and understand the Pulitzer-winning novel each year. For her and a lot of other readers, the Pulitzer Prize is the ultimate, authoritative stamp of approval, and it got her to read books she wouldn’t normally read — and she gained a huge sense of accomplishment from finishing them.
There were plenty of worthy books in 2011: The Submission by Amy Waldman, Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta, and The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht come to mind. What books do you think were deserving? Was the Pulitzer Board just being curmudgeonly, or do you agree with its decision?
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* This post originally implied that jurors Susan Larson, Maureen Corrigan, and Michael Cunningham were responsible for the decision not to award a fiction prize this year. The decision rests solely with the Pulitzer board. We regret the error.